Right Parables, Wrong Perspective Intro 1: the Purpose for Writing

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I’m starting a series of blogs to give excerpts on my new book Right Parables, Wrong Perspectives: A Diverse Reading of Luke’s Parables. Feel free to share these excerpts with everyone who likes to read the Bible or on your Facebook wall. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Maybe with the holiday coming up, you can give your friends and families the gift of reading. Today, I’m going to address what this book is for with the following excerpt from pp. ix-x.

Jesus’ parables are polyphonic. His parables could represent one voice, while there are also multiple voices of ways the stories could have been told. This explains my title and subtitle. The title refers to the wrong perspectives. Jesus was a polemical teacher who didn’t hesitate to disclose and denounce the wrong perspectives of his day. The many voices could be the many perspectives people used to view a particular issue, while Jesus emphasized his own perspective. When reading as modern readers, we should keep in mind these perspectives. There have been a number of very good books on parables in recent years. Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent probably provides the most thorough methodological demonstration of various ways to read New Testament parables. Amy-Jill Levine’s brief work Short Stories by Jesus also provides a uniquely Jewish perspective, demonstrating the provocation Jesus was bringing to his audience while correcting anti-Semitic readings common in the modern West. In this book, I try to be more concise than Snodgrass and focus more on the original readers in addition to Jesus’ own audience. My book serves the curious and nontechnical reader who wishes to understand Jesus’ parables in Luke.

In this book, I will take sample parables of Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke to show how reading them within their literary and cultural context will challenge both the ancient and modern readers. Inevitably, I shall skip over a few of the parables simply because my purpose isn’t to write a thorough commentary on Luke’s parables, but to see how a certain way of reading can help us understand any of Luke’s parables more accurately, creatively, and clearly. At the end of our study, we shall discover that Luke had a very practical and social message that often addresses how resources ought to be used within the faith community and by the faithful individual. It remains a challenging message today in our churches.

I write to serve two primary groups of readers. I serve the busy pastor who wishes to get the gist of Jesus’ parables while juggling a busy ministerial schedule. I also serve the lay-person who wishes to go beyond the usual popular studies on Jesus’ parables to something with a solid intellectual spine, but without the academic jargon. This effort will cause me to be selective about presenting technical information that may be better suited to academic commentaries on either the parables or on Luke (and there are so many excellent ones out there). My goal is simple. I wish to help my readers appreciate the fact that we often retell Jesus’ parables in ways opposite to Jesus’ intent. When certain essential elements are missing in our interpretation, we not only risk interpreting a partial truth, but we often derive the opposite message. This book hopes to correct some of our misreading by looking at how ancient audiences could have read them, and then how that also reflects modern misreadings.

This book is also a continuation of my book on Matthew, Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories. Readers of Right Kingdom will notice similarity in format and differences in content. I will not rehash in detail the preface from Right Kingdom. The summary below will serve our purpose in reading Luke’s stories.

Forgive and Forget? A Hurtful Christian Cliche

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“Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica…. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you because he’s helpful to me in my ministry.” 2 Timothy 4.9-11

 

Forgive and forget! That’s the Christian mantra to describe the process of forgiveness that isn’t quite as biblical as people claim. I’ve already talked about the the importance of repentance and confession in different blogs. In this one, I wish to focus on the idea of forgetting or forgetfulness. My purpose is to show how forgetting or forgetfulness isn’t always the best policy.

 

On August 13, Pastor Rick Warren writes on his Facebook that God thinks all lives matter as an alternative to Black Lives Matter movement. Thereafter, a firestorm erupted on this thread with an almost unifying voice of condemnation from our black brothers and sisters and almost a unifying voice of support from our white brothers and sisters. A simple appeal to God’s name shouldn’t divide the church, but it does and it has. Why? We no longer hold slaves. We no longer call black folks the N-word. Well, at least most of us who sincerely try to follow Christ don’t. Slavery and mistreatment of blacks are something that belong to a distant memory … at least for some folks, namely the white brothers and sisters who defend Pastor Rick. The same is not the case for the black brothers and sisters who still feel like second-class citizens. That explains the chasm, but it doesn’t explain the spirituality that causes the chasm.

 

The spirituality that causes the chasm is precisely what is wrong with the innocent Facebook post. Such a post is usually posted by a well-meaning person who doesn’t understand that the struggle is real for some folks today. The logic of such a person usually reads something like this. Since I’m not racist and I have minority friends, the world must be a better place already. And since the world is already a better place, why not forget the past, forgive the trespass (since I’m not racist) and move forward to bigger and better things. This logic is pretty much repeated in many posts that defend this attitude of “I’m OK; you must be OK.” It doesn’t work.

 

I remember growing up in the new South (Florida) as an immigrant and many of my classmates told me many racist Ching Chong jokes. Believe it or not, some of them are still my friends today (well, some aren’t). You know why? It’s because I’ve forgiven them. Whether they apologized personally to me or not doesn’t matter because they themselves have moved on to bigger and better things and they themselves have grown into better people. Many of the same folks have grown to be open-minded and mature Christians. So, we remain friends. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I forget those incidents. Forgiveness only means that I don’t hold grudges. When I see parallel incidents happening today, my radar is still up. Why? It’s because I forgave but I didn’t forget. Forgetfulness is spiritually harmful not just to the individual but to the Body of Christ.

 

Just because some people have grown up to be better and become “OK”, it doesn’t follow that everyone and the system that promotes that has been fixed. We don’t forget history. The church’s spirituality to forgive and forget has abused and will continue to injure many a member before someone calls her out. Easy forgetfulness isn’t progress. Easy forgetfulness is folly. It’s the naivety that causes historical terror to repeat itself.

 

As I type this blog, our nation still has a long way to go. Fraternities and sororities in the universities across the nation are some of the most racially segregated organizations. So are churches. It doesn’t matter that Pastor Rick’s churches have members that speak 67 different languages. So what? Some of those churches are foreign churches. Of course, these people would speak the local languages. The problem of Black Lives Matter is an entirely different issue. It isn’t merely about diversity. It’s about the present injustice that can sometimes happen to black folks as we non-black Christians forcefully ask them to forgive past trespasses so that we can forget any historical lesson that can prevent the PRESNT system from abusing more black folks.

 

If we read the writing of 2 Timothy, we must understand that forgetting past wrongs isn’t a biblical requirement. The author pointed out that he didn’t forget those who had abandoned him. He didn’t hold grudges but he also wasn’t naively believing that everything was “A OK.” Nothing is “A OK”. The author didn’t forget, even though he seems to have forgiven Mark’s possible trespasses when he abandoned the Pauline mission. Just because one guy came back to the Pauline mission, it doesn’t mean that other guys didn’t replace him in being derelict in their duties.

 

The spirituality of the Bible is realistic. It isn’t some impossible ideal. Forgiveness doesn’t require forgetting or forgetfulness. Instead, it requires gracious memory that teaches a historical lesson. To forget the historical lesson or fail to identify the present problem is to damage the Body of Christ because when one part is hurting, the other part should advocate for it or risk further injury. The biggest offense that comes from posts like Warren’s isn’t the truth it proclaims, but its failure to acknowledge the pain in the Body of Christ. Such half-truths are schismatic and ultimately will split the Body of Christ unnecessarily via the racial divide.

“Like” it or not, we’ve become non-thinkers: the impact of social media on our thinking

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“All lives matter!” says the meme.

 

Some of the most widely shared memes on Facebook are the ones that create dichotomies while sporting a cool photo. Usually, these memes have to do with the latest ambulance bloggers are chasing. I want to sit back a bit and look at the way such dichotomous memes play out their logic.

 

The logic goes something like this. Why are we crying out about Cecil the lion when lions in fact kill REAL African people? Why are we crying over the suicide of Heath Ledger when hundreds of thousands are killed everyday everywhere? Why do we lament the overdose of Whitney Houston when many of our troops are being injured and killed every week? Why are we crying “black lives matter” when “all lives matter”? The list goes on.

 

The problem isn’t that these memes aren’t bringing a message; they do.  The message however stops us from thinking. Instead of seeing the angle that comes from both sides, we are forced to choose sides by being outraged for at least 5 minutes.  Perhaps both sides of the issue have legitimate points, but social media have forced us to think in terms of “either-or”. Is it okay to be upset at both the deaths of celebrities like Heath Ledge or Whitney Houston and the lost lives of our soldiers or innocent children? I can’t imagine my readers saying “No.” Is it possible to think that black lives matter in a society whose narrative seems to cheapen black lives at times while seeing that people of all colors deserve justice and fair treatment? No one can say “No” to that. See the problem?

 

Sometimes, these artificially created dichotomies aren’t even logically compatible, but are deliberately framed by the meme creator to set illogical fire for his or her own cause, and we feed into that fire with our thoughtless “likes” or “shares.” What we need isn’t dichotomies these days. What we need is the ability to think independently, issue by issue. What we need is the destruction of such unhealthy binaries. The problem with social media is that we often are so reliant on them that we lose our ability to think independently or to create our own categories. Then, there’s the additional problem of visual appeal. Many people don’t even think through some of the updates and hit “like” and “share”. Why? It’s because the update has an appealing photo attached to it. Even if we’ve read the update, we probably didn’t think too hard on it. We aren’t ruled by our clear thinking; we’re ruled by images and false dichotomies. In so doing, we’ve lost the precious ability to use our brains. The worse thing though is that we’ve lost our ability to be tolerant even in our apparently civil and free society.

 

In our seemingly tolerant era, social media like Facebook and Instagram have taken away our ability to have “both-and” thinking by creating a hegemony of “either-or.” This phenomenon cheapens thinking the way selfie sticks cheapen professional and artfully constructed photography. There’re a new global colonialism. It’s no longer bound by ethnicity or nationalities. It’s transnational. Social media have become king.

 

How does the above affect Christians? I think it affects Christians tremendously. Many Christians these days are activist ideologues. In favor of activism, many dismiss deeper and calmer thinking. In favor of ethics, many dismiss the importance of what’s the right thinking before the right doing. In favor of jingoism, many no longer want to discuss what the true meaning and implication of any given jingo. More importantly, if social media are the rulers of our lives, we’re no longer ruled by scriptural reasoning and theological thinking that make God our King. In our claim for more of a global Christianity, we’re more local than ever with the think tank being the computer screen in the comfort of our bedrooms. We think that the virtual reality of this global faith in the microcosm created by our screens is the only reality. Instead of thinking about why we “like” or “dislike” certain ideas, we’re ruled by our own feeling of “liking” something. We’re in grave danger of losing the intellectual essence of our faith.

 

A further negative impact that social media have exerted over our faith is our ability to tolerate different ideas. I’m not talking about cheap tolerance of political correctness but real intellectual tolerance that allows different ideas to exist. Once we “like” something, we are committed to the original writer’s ideology. We’re temporarily committed to the whole idea. The “like” button forces us to choose ideas because there aren’t too many other alternatives such as “I like this part but not that part.” The problem is, intellectually vigorous reflection requires all sorts of alternatives. Real thinking doesn’t force us to mindlessly like something because the image was nice or certain phrases were catchy. It searches the “why” and “how” of each issue. In other words, the “like” button is potentially anti-intellectual. If our intellect is part of our spirituality, we can also say that many times, that same button is anti-spiritual because it blinds us from more nuanced thinking. Thus, I will always insist that social media, like our TV or movie screens, will never be a place of serious intellectual inquiry. Such media are purely for entertainment. If you think I’m wrong, think about the last Facebook update you liked yesterday and how much of it you remembered. The same goes for hundreds and thousands of Facebook or Instagram updates and hashtags.  I think my point will be proven without any doubt.

(Dis)Honorarium in Speaking Ministries

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The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.  For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 1 Tim. 5.17-18 (NIV)

 

An article has been circulating the internet on speaker honorarium by Dr. John Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College, on how churches abuse and underpay outside speakers.  As a frequent outside speaker (since I make my living freelancing), I concur that his picture is accurate, but even his picture can be a little too optimistic at times.  Reality can be much worse.  The above verses deal with the payment for elders in the early church, but it also implicates all sorts of ministerial honoraria.

 

 

One lesson I learn about freelancing is that there’s no fixed rate.  If an organization thinks your service is a priority to the its health, they’ll pay you whatever you ask for.  If someone just wants you to fill a hole in the program, the sponsor will just say that you’re too expensive or try to negotiate your price down or the organization will try to nickel and dime your expenses.  One very large (non-Chinese) conference I know pays a speaker a seemingly large amount until the speaker has to pay for his own travel and food.  Well, the whole hassle comes out to about much less than a speaker who does his own speaking in a church for a weekend.  In some cases, if you’re a big enough name, they’ll even try to profit off your speaking by selling your DVD’s or MP3’s without your permission.  The plot looks something like this. They’ll come to you after and say, “Well, you’re OK to give us permission to record and sell your DVD’s, right?” If you somehow object, they’ll tell others that you’re all about the money and never about serving God’s people.

 

 

To make matters worse, many places that invite speakers to speak never think of the financial matter from the perspective of the speaker.  Most places won’t pay for even a  premium economy seat.  This is quite a small matter until you have to arrive at a place jet lagged, and are expected to speak immediately. The worst are the long-haul flights (let’s say, over 5 hours) where you’re cramped next to some overweight guy who takes up two seats while breathing really heavy.  You get off the plane feeling infinitely worse than when you got on. Then, they expect the speaker to perform.  In contrast, we don’t do that to our (both amateur and professional) athletes. We let them adjust to the time changes, jet lag and changed locations.  Not so the church, even though speaking is also a physical act! Somehow the church often expects the speaker to work immediately without break, even having to stand for hours during the speaking engagement (we stand for hours because after the worship team sits down, we’re still standing to speak).  If the speaker wants to arrive one day early to adjust, s/he would have to pay for meal expenses on those days.

 

 

These above situations are true scenarios in my own experience because honorarium is all about power and transaction. The one holding the money bag has the power in the transaction. Money is power and the more money someone possesses, the more power he holds.  Of course, as speakers, we also have (disproportionally less) power to say no, and I’ve learned to say no a lot more lately.  The fact is, the church doesn’t always get its priorities straight, amidst all these “programs” it creates.

 

 

In my travel and speaking, many people have the mistaken notion that speaking for huge churches often pay better.  Sometimes, this is the case, but quite often, it is not. I can only speak from my own experience.  In fact, the ones that paid me the most reasonable and bargain the least are small churches.  Why? The reason is simple.  Small churches don’t always have the luxury of running many out-of-control programs that also drain funding.  For example, I know for a fact that some churches spend huge money for “evangelistic meetings” (aka proselytizing via guilt trip, glamor, and manipulation) because they think head count is the most important thing.  One particular Christian celebrity, who’s known more for his heretical and outrageous preaching than his theological acumen, charges something like 200,000 HKD (almost 30,000 USD) per event. Wow, that’s a GOOD living.  I won’t tell you how much I charge, but this amount is way above my fee.  The fee is based purely upon what they think each speaker or his/her ministry is worth.  Visible and immediate results take priority every time.  The usage of money is based on transaction between the giver and the taker.  The giver weighs the value, and the taker represents value. Somehow, Jesus taught something quite different about money and the kingdom.

 

 

Another thing that churches skimp on is the hotel. If you aren’t prepare to pay for a decent hotel, don’t bother inviting a decent speaker. The reason is simple. We can’t think when we don’t have enough sleep. The problem isn’t whether the hotel is nice or not. That’s usually the mistaken notion people have about hotels. Get us business hotels where the clients aren’t on holiday, and their next day performance in front of the boardroom is dependent on a good night of sleep. One of the best accommodations I had (pictured in the blog) is a service apartment in Australia where I got a peaceful night of sleep to recuperate from the busy activities of the day and evening.

 

 

Before booking a hotel, find out whether there’s heavy construction going on because sometimes a good hotel puts up a sale because of the renovation. I’ve stayed in nice hotels that have continuous drilling in the wall from morning to night. Forget about sleeping and not getting a headache. I’ve had to leave the hotel to avoid a headache. Hotels where people spend holidays are the worst because people come in and out at all different hours, making horrendous amount of noise right when we’re about to fall asleep OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Some hotels have an indoor pool that isn’t aired out properly and is located very near the room. I’ve gotten ill just from smelling the fumes of chlorine before. I may sound like I’m asking a lot, but think about this, when you conduct your next biggest contract sale out of town, would you put yourself in my hotel and expect to make your next biggest sale? Well, there’s your answer. At the end of the day, many such decisions are based on priorities.

 

 

Kingdom is much more about priorities.  The reason 1 Timothy talks about payment for elders is mainly because the Ephesian church had some troubles with their existing eldership/leadership system, evident in the list of qualifications of 1 Tim. 3.  The passage in 1 Tim. 5 is based on qualification first and foremost.  In other words, qualified people get better pay period!  These days, our societal value causes us to pay athletes more than teachers by a ton.  Entertainers make much more than educators.  Has society’s value somehow crept into the church?  The honorarium system and salary scale for ministers indicate that such social value has penetrated the thick walls of the church, even if the church fails to reach beyond its thick walls into society.  While visitors might find our thick walls hard to break through, secularized value practically got a free pass though.  Often enough, money is simply the means to transaction for immediate gratification.  Good stewardship isn’t merely about financial planning. Good stewardship is about healthy thinking.  Money is only the means. The end is where the problem exists. Money was never the problem! It’s only the symptom.

Burning Money Like Trash for Jesus

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“When you give a luncheon of dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lam, the blind, and you will be blazed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  Luke 14.12-14

 

I’ve been contemplating on financial integrity lately, especially in the way churches use their money to celebrate different milestones.  I see a lot of funding misdirected.

 

One area of misdirected fund is anniversary celebrations for almost ALL Christian organizations.  It’s almost out of control.  I remember one time when I suggested to a certain organization that perhaps the best way to celebrate the anniversary is to do what Jesus said to do, invite all the poor and the oppressed to eat instead of throwing another food-wasting extravagant banquet.  Someone told me that I just didn’t get it.  SADLY, I DO GET IT. I exegete the Bible and write about it for a living.  Look at the above passage from what Jesus said in Luke.  What is so difficult about the plain meaning of Jesus’ teaching? It isn’t a metaphor. He really meant it.  I suspect our problem isn’t money. Our problem is priority.  The above teaching shows that the way we use money should be above a mere transaction.

 

Is Jesus against banqueting? Of course not.  He’s often seen eating with both the privileged and the underprivileged.  Jesus was talking about priorities.  Jesus was demanding that our priorities shouldn’t always be based on the idea of transaction of visible gains.  I emphasize “visible” because Jesus did use a lot of transaction and stewardship metaphors to describe the often invisible benefits of the kingdom.  The visible benefits are almost immediate as they come in real repayment (see Luke 14.12).  It’s all about what “I” can get out of it “now”.  The “I” and “now” aren’t what the kingdom is all about.  That’s what Jesus was saying.  The church ministry is never just about the money.  Neither is the church budget.  It’s about priorities.  IF Jesus’ saying “where your feature is, there your heart will be also” is true, the souls of many churches and Christian organizations are already dead.

When Something is Not Your Problem: Revisiting the Good Samaritan

The good Samaritan story is so famous that I really don’t need to repeat it.  A w file back, I saw a sign (from the Facebook page Blue Street Journal) that says, “Privilege is a problem when you don’t think something is a problem because it is a not problem to you PERSONALLY.”   Nothing comes clearer than when I point out the problem of racism (let’s call it a blind spot) in the rhetoric of a white evangelical leader and immediately I get called a racist for pointing that part out.

 

I read the funny sign in conjunction with a blog that says the Asian-Americans overreacted against the Deadly Viper book, a book Zondervan yanked due to racist stereotype.  The same blogger who is obviously white congratulates the writer Mike Foster for moving on from that drama to launch a successful speaking circuit on that exact topic, not so much about racial reparation but about how the writer feels that he’s a victim by AA Christians’ campaign and how Christians are People of Second Chances.  Then, I read further about Mark Driscoll’s recent emergent (notice I threw that word in there) with Hillsong who paints himself as a victim of hate campaign against him so soon after his disgraceful departure from the mess he found called Mars Hill.  One common bond between these narrative is the rhetorical victim switching.  Victim switching in a society of narcissism is big business for speaking opportunities if you’re famous.  The failure of all these people is the inability to see things from those whom they’ve wronged.  Surely, the backlash is harsh. I don’t believe anyone should call up Driscoll to threaten him or his family.  Neither should people threaten Mike Foster and all the rest of the insensitive crew who helped produce that awful spiritual book called Deadly Viper. But let’s face it, you aren’t really being persecuted when you’re making millions of dollars from your mistake. A few angry words aren’t hurting any of these men’s bank accounts.

 

The Good Samaritan story deserves a closer look because many modern privileged people don’t understand it. As a result, they also don’t practice it.  The question that prompted Jesus to tell the story was from an expert of the law who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  The story frequently gets interpreted in only one way: be a neighbor to another person.  Surely, this is a decent reading, but we fail to grasp the full significance in the story in several ways.  Jesus was answering a person of privilege in his society.  Jesus was also answering the question about the identity of the neighbor.  Who then experienced the answer to “Who is my neighbor?”  It was the victim of the robbery.  He was the only person who could tell who the neighbor was.  Here’s the thing.  We often miss the ironic twist of Jesus because he was telling the law teacher who was privileged to stoop down just a bit not so much to relate to the powerful religious teachers who passed by but to relate to the powerless victim who experienced the kindness of the “other”, the Samaritan.

 

The dire failure in our society AND in our churches is our inability to relate to the point of view of the other.  As a result, we also fail to identity who our true neighbor is.  Instead, we like to think of our true neighbors as those who agree with our convictions and share our same background (whether that background is race, gender or social economic class).  Those who share our background is no more a neighbor as the religious leaders to the injured man. Instead, in a surprising and subversive twist, Jesus stated that the true neighbor was the Samaritan who had nothing in common with the injured man (presumably a Jew coming out of Jerusalem. Who else would be coming out of Jerusalem).  If our faith community leaders also want to use their privileged position to do victim switching in order to further their own agenda, they’re no better than those who walked by the injured man. At most, they suffer minor damage due to their own stupidity. A minor setback in reputation (with no sincere apology) and a little lost book revenue are nothing in comparison to the systemic prejudice that existed within the system they lead.  This is the modern failure to read Jesus’ parable properly and follow Jesus command precisely.

 

Make no mistake about it.  When we look at the cases I just talked about, these people are privileged.  Mike Foster and his white blogger who supported him are privileged because of their skin color.  Why are they privileged?  Instead of letting their repentance sink in, they can take their trespasses against the Asian American brothers and sisters and turn them into their business of speaking tour and a book called Freeway.  Driscoll is privileged simply because he’s got a worldwide audience and sold books as well as built a speaking circuit for millions of dollars of profit.  Anyone who can turn his trespasses and not repent but instead turn them into another money-making opportunity is privileged.  Privilege is when you can afford not to see stuff from the other side of the coin and everything would still be fine and profitable.  Jesus was talking to a privileged person when he spoke about the Good Samaritan.  That’s the aspect many interpreters fail to grasp.  Perhaps, Jesus’ admonition to the teacher of the law needs a renewed look for the modern privileged because Jesus was saying that as a privileged person, he couldn’t afford not to see things from a victim’s point of view unless he wanted to skip over who he real neighbor was, the Samaritan.  Privilege is a problem when you don’t think something is a problem because it is a not problem to you PERSONALLY.

Christian Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies VII: But not every scriptural quotation is beneficial

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Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive.    1 Corinthians 10.23

 

This is the last of the series on silly controversies in the church, sparked off by a discussion on someone’s Facebook on tattoos and piercings (along with smoking and drinking).  As a matter of review, we’ve dealt with the following six silly objections thus far. First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Fourth, “someone may stumble.” Fifth, “the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says that getting tats is wrong.” Sixth, “It’s a cultural problem … you don’t understand what tattoos and piercings mean in our culture.”  We have now come to our seventh objection, “Everything is permissible–but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible–but not everything is constructive.”

 

This is a common (mis)quotation of 1 Corinthians 10.23 that seems to be the magical key to cover all controversial issues, often by someone who wants to forbid a certain practice in church, no matter what that practice is.

 

This is yet one ore perfect sample text for a book on exegetical fallacies. Since I didn’t deal with it in my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings book, I will deal with it here to demonstrate the utter absurdity of using scripture in this way.

 

1 Corinthians 10.23a “Everything is permissible” is often viewed (correctly) by scholars to be the voice of the agitators in Corinth. Therefore, the NIV translation puts it in quotation marks. What is everything being permissible? Within context, Paul was talking about Old Testament food laws that might have caused confusion among his converts. Certainly, none of the food was sinful in itself, but the ones used in the pagan temple ceremony where participation in the ritual occurred (10.18-20). As a result, the situation causes further confusion in the table of the Lord’s Supper (10.21).

 

The vocabulary of the wider context deserves examination. 1 Corinthians 8.1, 4, 7, and 10.19 provide the context because the “food sacrificed to idols” literally translates “idol meat”. The same word occurs in 10.28 has a different word “offered in sacrifice” to describe the food eaten. The word can be translated “set apart thing” or “sacred thing”. Most likely, the meat here that was set apart was sold. On the one hand, just prior to the 10.23 quote, 10.19 talks of meat that was part of the temple meal. The same meat required participation in temple ceremony in order to eat. Would that be ideal? Paul said, “No.” On the other hand, the imaginary dialogue partner refuted Paul by saying, “Everything is permissible.”

 

So, Paul used a different vocabulary that follows 10.23 that shows not the stuff in the temple that required participation but stuff that was possibly sold from the temple for profit in the marketplace. In order to understand the issue, we must understand the background. In the marketplace, the top grade meat ought to have come out of the temple. Due to the excessive amount of meat, the temple would sell its meat to the market to make more money. Of course, the grade of meat sold out to the market was very good. Whenever someone wanted to throw a banquet, he would go to the market and pick out the meat. As a matter of courtesy, he would pick out good meat. The problem remains however that no one could tell whether the meat had been used in the temple or not.  The safest bet of course was to take the extreme measure of being a vegetarian but no one threw a vegetarian banquet.  This was the situation of 10.23ff. The whole situation created a realistic and awkward moment for Paul’s congregation. Within context, the congregation also had regular banquet fellowship where the Lord’s Supper was part of the procedures (cf. 11.17-22, 33). Now, the church could well get the meat without asking too many questions and she was certainly free to do so. A good piece of meat surely didn’t have the magical power to curse the eater.

 

Now, the issue becomes complicated when the believer got invited by an unbeliever to eat. That was the situation of 10.23-11.1. The freedom to eat would cause someone with a bad conscience to think that the church community meal was similar to that of the temple (10.27-29). In other words, the participant at the unbeliever’s banquet was so fixated in his mind that eating this meat was the same as worshipping false gods that no explanation would do other than total refrain from eating the meat. In other words, the central core teaching of monotheism was at stark due to misunderstanding. As a result, Paul advised restraint from eating the meat.

 

Three issues surface. First, the situation directly relates to worshipping false gods. Second, the situation directly relates to a problem of causing others to misunderstand the central belief of the faith. So, when Paul said to eat and drink to the glory of God in 10.31, he meant that the believer ought not to cause others to stumble in their understanding of what the true faith was. This was not a mere case of sacrificing for the gospel without understanding what the core belief of the gospel. This sacrifice directly related to the core belief.

 

As my last six blog posts in the series demonstrate, tattoos, piercings, smoking and drinking aren’t part of the core belief of Christian faith. No monotheistic belief was violated. No morality was compromised. Even if someone disagrees with me on the exact situation Paul was addressing, tattoos, piercings, smoking and drinking cant’ fit in there. By fitting them in there, we’re trivializing Paul’s gospel and his main concern. Some people may not like it, but my exact understanding of the context of 1 Corinthians 10.23 is what the church needs. People shouldn’t quote something out of context so that they can abuse the power of scripture as a weapon against others. This is not what the church should do. So, rather than being careful of WHAT you quote, be careful HOW you quote!

 

After the demonstration of the utter fallacy of misquoting 1 Corinthians 10.23, I will say that the problem is never scripture.  The interpreter of scripture is often the problem.  A quote to apply in any situation is also an interpretation because not every situation fits that quote. The frequent hijacking and raping of scripture should stop, especially in churches that assert that they respect the authority of the Bible. The ones who claim to have the most respect often show the least.

Christian Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies VI: the Bursting of the Religious Bubble

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This is the sixth installment of the blog posts on silly Christian controversies using something as harmless as tattoos and earrings as example, simply because some Christians get so obsessed by them.

Here’s an excerpt from the book China Rich Girlfriend: ‘Eleanor sidled up to Astrid and began her commentary, “The only thing missing from that service was a good Methodist pastor. Where is Tony Chin when you need him? I didn’t really care for that … minister. Did you see he was waring an earring? What sort of … minister is he?”‘ Sounds familiar? This is funny considering the fact that even a non-Christian author knows about Christian hangups. 

As a matter of review, we have done posts so far of the following questions. First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Fourth, “someone may stumble.” Fifth, “the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says that getting tats is wrong.” Today, we come to the sixth objection about tattoos and piercings, “It’s a cultural problem … you don’t understand what tattoos and piercings mean in our culture.”

“It’s a cultural problem…” is yet another magical key used by the church police to regulate neutral behaviors in the church. Culture, first of all, is shifting sand. It means different things for different people. For the present objectors, culture probably means a set of acceptable beliefs and practices. Acceptable for what and to whom?

The objector assumes that everyone shares his culture and this is precisely where the objection goes badly wrong. We don’t all share the same cultural assumptions. For instance, tattoos were once used in the Roman times to show the mark of owners on slaves (like the modern way of branding cattle), but we’ve moved on since. For some in Asia (e.g., the Yakuza’s), tattoos are similar to gang clothing here in the US (though some US gang members also sport certain tattoos), but that has definitely changed. If we walk into many MMA gym, you’d find more fighters with ink than not. Gang tattoos in many cases have become a thing of the past.

In the case of earring, the cultural implications are as varied as tattoos. Deuteronomy 15.17 tells us that when a slave wanted to work for a master even though he’s freed, he could choose to pierce his ear and show that loyalty. The slave could then work as a freedman for the master. In ancient Egypt, both men and women wore earrings. Earring has also a very complicated set of interpretations in modern world. For instance, when I got my ear pierced, one young person suggested that I ought do both ears. When I was growing up, heterosexual men only wore earring on the left side. However, these days, no less a mega star than David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo wear them on both ears. We have no doubt about these men’s sexual orientation (this, of course, isn’t my homophobic statement). The point of the matter is, culture shifts and changes faster than ever. Someone remarked to me once, “I wonder whether Christians know how stupid they look to the outside world.” My reply would be, “I wonder whether Christians know that there’s an outside world.” In theory, they know, but in practice, not so much.

The problem of tattoos and earrings, if we put the problem in pastoral term, is that the church can’t understand culture. Neither is the average Christian a competent interpreter of culture. As incompetent interpreters of culture, we’re yet so quick to use “culture” as an excuse to prohibit the action of other people. The controversy, if we can even call it a controversy, exposes the church’s culturally unaware biases. Quite often, the church exists in a bubble and a time warp, while the rest of the world passes us by. This is tragic. Thus, before we prohibit other people from certain action, maybe we would best examine whether we interpret such action correctly instead of shoehorning out own grid on the matter. How can the church reach out to the field, if she thinks the field is a minefield?

Someone once said something along the line of “the problem isn’t whether we can but whether we should.” I think no matter whether we can or we should, I believe we all “should” think hard about the logic of our philosophy and read hard the scripture on which we base our faith before spouting off our “wisdom” on a fellow believer. THAT we should do. For the page image today, I deliberately set it to the photo of my earring along with my Hugo Boss suit.  Can I? Should I? I can and should.

Back to China Rich Girlfriend, I must spoil the story by saying that Eleanor, the one who complained about the earring on a minister, is an insufferable schemer. If that’s the kind of culture we offend with tattoos and earrings, the offense isn’t so bad then. The bigger question becomes, “When someone comes into my church, does s/he find the Insufferable Schemer Club or a loving community?”

Christians Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies V

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This blog continues on the silliness of Christian controversies. The best place to look at the way Christians talk about tattoos is always the way they quote scripture because after all, scripture SEEMS to be the foundation for Christian practice. I said “seems” because honestly, what is apparent versus what is real is farther than a country mile.

 

 

The objections, by the way of review of previous blogs, are. First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Fourth, “someone may stumble.” Today, I deal with the fifth objection, “the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says that getting tats is wrong.”

 

 

Getting the right outfit is always a challenge for me when I go out to speak. Why not? My biggest concern of course is whether my clothing matches. My other concern of course is whether through the course of the conference whether I can mix and match the right combination while minimizing luggage load. What does this have to do with Christian tattoos and piercing? Stay tuned.

 

 

Let’s see what the OT (aka the Hebrew Bible) actually says about the matter of tattoos. Leviticus 19.28 is a typical quote. It says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” We know what it says, but what did it mean?

 

 

 

The cutting usually have to do with pagan mourning rituals. Surely, mourning via throwing of ashes on one’s head was allowed, but not cutting. The context of Leviticus 19.28 was in terms of worship. The verses that follow seem to talk about ritual prostitution as well. Thus, the best guess of all this discussion about body must be about pagan rituals. So such things apply to our lives today? If one says yes, then we must also apply the previous context about mixed breeding and mixed seeding. Sure, there are verses in the context that we consider relevant today such as honoring parents, but that’s because honoring parents have been repeated in NT teachings. The teaching about the body isn’t. Neither is the teaching about mixed fabric clothing.

 

Is the above discussion a bit silly? Yes. Those who quote Leviticus should make sure they wear clothing that is 100% cotton or they’d be in grave danger.

 

 

As I often say, scripture isn’t the problem, but its interpreters are. Make sure you check your clothing material label before buying next time just in case …By the way, for my image of this blog, I posed a picture of me in my Italian cotton sharkskin suit just in case anyone wants to check on whether my clothing is kosher. The shoes are also 100% Italian leather just in case… It’s silly, I know.

Christians Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies IV: Stumblers beware?

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This is part of a series of blog posts about silly controversies and the logical objections against certain practices. The ongoing debates about many such issues just demonstrate the utter biblical and theological illiteracy of many evangelical Christians.

 

Let me review the usual answers thus far, and I had already dealt with three of them in previous posts.  First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Today, we deal with the fourth objection, “someone may stumble.” Oh, gasp!

 

One conservative evangelical pastor was preaching one day, and afterwards, a listener told him that his tie had distracted him from his listening experience simply because of the fancy patterns. The preacher never wore that tie again in fear of stumbling someone who’s trying to listen to his sermon. This logic is alive and well.

 

“Someone may stumble” is the magical key that stops everyone from doing anything you don’t want him/her to do in a church setting. It’s a phrase the denote unspiritual disposition of the accused, albeit without trial of scripture or common logic. It’s a phrase that is bound to cause the ignorant to be completely paralyzed in fear, unless you aren’t ignorant. It’s the weapon of choice for the church police. Well, I hope my readers aren’t ignorant when it comes to this idea of stumbling.

 

In the NT, the Greek word for “stumble” is where we get our word “scandal” from, but it doesn’t have the same meaning. Although some usages seem to point towards a “positive” aspect to this word, let’s look at some cases of negative usage of that word before looking at the positive aspects. My list is brief and space doesn’t permit me to deal with each passage in exegetical details. Anyone interested in exegetical details can either read my books or other scholars’ commentaries.

 

The most negative usage of this word “stumbling” in the Greek language has to do with deliberately setting a trap, but there’re other less negative usages. In Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 13.41, 16.23, and 18.7, the word denotes something that causes sin or causing the messianic mission to fail (i.e., the failure to go to the cross). In Paul, the word could denote a kind of blindness to truth (Romans 9.33) possibly even caused by God (Romans 11.9). Hmmm, God caused stumbling? Wow, that’s a novel thought, no? In Paul’s ethical teachings in Romans 14.13, the word could mean that certain action would cause a fellow believer to sin in a religious and ritual manner (e.g., food laws) or falling on bad doctrines (Romans 16.17-18). In order for such a stumbling to happen, REAL (and NOT imaginary) sins and weaknesses had to exist first.

 

Contrary to popular Christian preaching (gosh, how I despise so much of what passes for popular preaching), stumbling can be less negative where the responsibility doesn’t fall on the one who causes stumbling but on the one who stumbles. Paul had stated in 1 Corinthians 1.23 that the gospel could be a stumbling block. The cross indeed was a stumbling block (Galatians 5.11).  In Peter’s letter, Jesus himself became the stumbling block in his mission because of the offense he caused (1 Peter 2.8). I’m by no means comparing all the people with tattoos and earrings to Jesus, but it is not enough to just appeal to stumbling as a principle to stop people from doing so. The problem isn’t whether stumbling happened, but what kind of stumbling happened and whose responsibility the stumbling is.

 

I recall meeting with leaders of this one conference who were extremely distressed by my earring. In desperation to get me to take it off, one pastor (poor guy) uttered the above magical phrase, “Someone may stumble.” Certainly, IF my wearing an earring or someone sporting a tattoo would cause someone to sin by falling into false doctrines or sexual immorality (really? Do I even need to go there? Do women ACTUALLY lust MORE towards guys with earrings and tattoos? Some are even concerned about my bald head.), the problem shouldn’t be ink or earring.  The problem ought to be solved by either psychologists or at least a heavy dose of pastoral counseling. That, in fact, was what I told the distressed pastor.

 

Well, in light of the above brief study, perhaps a bit of positive stumbling is what we need because I’m fairly sure no one was being prevented from going to the cross.  Perhaps an indignant person (or perhaps that pastor himself) ought to do a bit of positive stumbling and then examine why such a trivial matter becomes an essential of the gospel. The church doesn’t have enough positive stumbling these days.  Maybe someone’s tattoo or my earring had inadvertently become a kind of avant-garde performing art as part of our gospel preaching!  If my earring or someone else’s ink causes some positive stumbling, thank God! Maybe after the hypocrites pick themselves off the floor, they can do a little thinking with their Christian minds.

 

As I always say, scripture is not the problem but the interpreter often is. Many interpretations are possible but not all interpretations are beneficial!  As for that evangelical preacher with that fancy tie at the beginning of the sermon, I suggest that he goes tie-less next time. That would eliminate all the problems. Oh, wait! Maybe that won’t because surely someone will fault him for NOT wearing a tie and “stumbling” someone else in the process of listening. With knit-picking hypocrites in church, you simply can’t win. Church life can be a dog-eat-dog world!

 

 

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